ECC2013/Infrastructure Stream

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Motivation / introduction

One of the main challenges in advancing commons as a stable paradigm is finding ways to develop commons-friendly infrastructures. As commoning practices grow more complex, so grows the need for infrastructures to help sustain and organize them. Commons, whether they are small or large scale, can benefit a lot from dependable communication, energy and transportation, for instance; frequently, the issue is not even that a commons can benefit from those services, but that its daily survival badly depends on them. Also, when we look at commoning initiatives as a loose network, it does not make sense that multiple commons in different fields or locations should have to repeat and overlap their efforts in obtaining those services independently, especially in the cases when such infrastructures could be shared in ways that do not severely affect each commons’ autonomy.

Many existing infrastructure systems, however, enable commons-unfriendly practices (e.g. fossil fuel-based individual transportation) or generate negative social and environmental impacts (e.g., nuclear power and even “clean” energy sources). While some remain barriers to the trend of privatization and are important drivers of social justice, as is the case of some public healthcare and education systems, others reinforce inequality, as they are custom-fit to cater to the needs of large corporations or of already well off elites – as when energy and transportation infrastructure is built by the state to benefit gigantic mining companies in Latin America, and when urban planning and investment is guided by real estate speculation in large cities all over the world; and meanwhile, nearby poor and marginalized populations – as well as their grassroots, alternative-building initiatives – remain underserved in all those aspects.

In contrast to this scenario, we need infrastructures that can “by design” foster and protect new practices of commoning; infrastructures that help bring about positive social changes instead of power concentration and individualistic behavior. Some examples of this are already emerging, with initiatives around distributed energy production, sharing of computing and networking resources (in projects such as Guifi.net, Freedombox and numerous others), and sharing of basic knowledge and instruments in hackerspaces and farmers networks such as Open Source Ecology; but there is still a lot to do and to invent in order to bring them to the forefront in our societies.

Objectives

The concept of commons has only recently (re)entered the public debate arena; when it comes to its relation with infrastructures, we are on an even less explored territory. This stream’s general orientation, thus, is less directed to immediate problem-solving than to (hopefully fruitful) exploration of the field and its emerging practices.

Nonetheless, the stream does have some goals. We’ll strive to identify some of the issues and challenges that, in the wider discussion about commons, are specific to infrastructures. We hope to connect those activists and researchers that are already involved with infrastructure issues through a productive (and not necessarily consensual) dialogue. We also expect to sensitize others about the need for commons-friendly infrastructures.

Finally, the following questions are possible entry points to the stream’s discussion:

  • What are the characteristics that make much of the existing infrastructures commons-unfriendly? What would be the characteristics of infrastructures that foster commoning “by design”? What are the challenges in building the latter?
  • In the context of commoning infrastructures, what could be the roles of the state – currently the main provider of infrastructures – and the market? How those actors conflict with commoning initiatives, and how could they be useful strategically (or even in the long term) in infrastructures provisioning?
  • While some emerging infrastructures have progressive dimensions (using distributed networks, promoting local access), they may be minor parts of larger, regressive infrastructures that still depend upon individual transportation, centralized power grids and concentrated industrial structures. Is this avoidable, and how so?
  • What lessons can be learned from the internet and its protocols, an infrastructure that arguably has fostered many digital information commons?

Methodology

The stream’s keynote will be introductory, aimed at presenting the field, some of the issues involved in it and examples of emerging commoning infrastructures.

The first stream session will focus on the current situation: analyzing existing infrastructures, the main actors involved and their relations with commons. It will start with kick-off speeches followed by open discussion.

The second stream session will revolve around what we want the situation to be in the future: emerging practices that aim at commons-friendly infrastructures, speculative alternatives, strategical considerations. Initially, there will be time for participants briefly presenting alternative infrastructures they are involved with or aware of. The bulk of the session will be dedicated to group-based work; the groups will discuss specific alternatives, or specific strategical issues. The session will be ended with concise reports on the groups’ discussions, and final comments.

These are flexible suggestions for the formats of both sessions (particularly the second one). They will be adjusted by participants, according to their number, their particular interests and the dynamics of our discussion.